April 6, 2007
Photo: (from upper-left corner) Alex Woods, Angela Gadzik, and Grant McCall demonstrate flint knapping for an interested Museum visitor.
Flintknappers Manufacture Arrowheads, Tools At UI Natural History Museum
If you walk into the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History on a Friday afternoon, you'll witness a scene from the past: a group huddling together, chipping and smoothing away chunks of flint or other stones to create arrowheads and tools.
Each Friday from noon to 3 p.m., about 10 UI students and faculty gather in the museum lobby to practice the ancient art of flintknapping. Participation is free and open to the public.
An organizer of the group, Grant McCall, a visiting assistant anthropology professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is eager to teach students and members of the public how to make arrowheads of their own. McCall encourages everyone to come out and participate in this rare opportunity at least once.
"It's really fun and appealing," said McCall. "It's an incredible art form that is really hard to give up once you get started. It's addicting. New members are always welcome and allowed to keep the arrowheads they produce."
The group began three years ago when Alexander Woods, a graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Anthropology, approached the Museum of Natural History and requested a space to begin teaching students and members of the public how to produce stone tools. The group is composed of students of all majors and members of the community who are interested in prehistory, archeology and the actual art form of knapping.
"It's a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to practice this ancient skill in the Museum of Natural History," Woods said.
The process of knapping, which involves breaking large chunks of stone with antler hammers and refining the edges with copper-reinforced pressure flakers, can be learned in a single afternoon. However, mastering the finer points of flintknapping can take a lifetime, Woods said.
Flintknapping begins with a large chunk of flint, or obsidian, which is the product of hardened volcanic lava, similar to glass. The stones are chipped down into small flakes, which are cut down even further with antler hammers to create a pre-form shape in the approximate size of the specific arrowhead. The edges are then smoothed down with copper tools called pressure flakers until they are refined to perfection. An ideal arrowhead will be large, thin, and symmetrical. A skilled flintknapper can complete a simple arrowhead in as little as 15 minutes while more complex designs can take over an hour, Woods said.
Woods explains that flintknapping is an important way to understand and appreciate people of the past. "Once you start doing this you realize the humanity of people from ancient cultures," he said. "You start to view them as rational human beings, as decision-makers, rather than just another part of history. It de-mystifies the exotic."
The mission of the UI Museum of Natural History is to inspire visitors of all ages with a sense of wonder, discovery, respect, and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds, through exhibits, programs, and collections, as well as linkages with UI research and activities. The Flintknappers are furthering the museum's mission by reaching out to the community and getting people excited about natural history.
For more information on the Iowa Flintknappers or the Museum of Natural History, visit http://www.uiowa.edu/~nathist/
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.http://www.uiowa.edu/~nathist/Site/flintknapping.html and http://www.uiowa.edu/~osa/learn/ancient/flint.htm